Your computer has exploded. Your external hard drive was stolen from your car. Then your house burned down. By all rights, you're having a total fail of an afternoon. But by backing up your computer's data to the cloud, none of these tragedies need cost you your precious memories. We're going to explain what cloud backups are, and which companies provide the best ones.
So then, what is cloud storage?
Put simply, backing up data to the cloud means you're backing up data to a hard drive in a secure data centre via your Internet connection, instead of just to a hard drive in your house. In fact, that data centre might be located on the other side of the world.
Using cloud backups, you've removed from your shoulders the burden and stress of protecting whatever device your data is stored on. A decent provider will also backup your backups, making sure those embarrassing pictures of an ex-partner are never at risk of being wiped because, y'know, he came round and took back your laptop, microwaved your dog and blew up your house.
Security is generally taken extremely seriously, and your data will be -- or should be, if you're using a backup provider worthy of its name -- heavily encrypted before being transferred from your machine. In some cases, levels of encryption used exceed government standards, and no-one -- not even the backup provider itself -- will be able to access your files except you.
Of course, because you're uploading data via the Web, the downsides largely concern the limited speed at which even a sweet Internet connection can upload your data. In fact, a large initial backup of, say, 200GB of files could take several weeks to upload if you're on a typical UK home-broadband connection. Subsequent uploads may require only a few seconds, however, as only changed files or completely new files will be uploaded.
But once your data's up floating in the cloud, it's safe from fire, flood and computer viruses that occur post-backup. Some backup and storage providers will give you access to your files regardless of where you are in the world, too, via their Web sites. We'll cover these shortly.
Naturally a hard-disk backup will almost always be faster, and for some people more convenient. But online backups can offer extra peace of mind and much greater levels of security.
Before we answer the question of which cloud-storage provider is best for you, a quick cloud backup checklist is in order. Regardless of who you choose to backup your data with, make sure they meet the requirements they ought to.
The CNET UK Cloud Storage Checklist
Does this backup provider use a good level of encryption? When transferring sensitive files, it's essential for this data to be encrypted so the only eyeballs that can read your files are the ones set into your face. A good level of encryption for backups is 256-bit or higher.
This is obvious: how much data can your provider give you, and for how much money? 2GB of storage will contain, very roughly, around 25 albums bought from iTunes. Make sure you have the option of getting more storage for your account if needed, or get an unlimited plan for large backups.
3. Data transfer limits
How many files you can store is one thing, but how many of these you can upload or download in one month is another. If you've run into usage caps on your broadband before, you'll know what we're talking about. Most backup providers won't restrict your data transfer, but be wary of any that do if you're planning on backing up an entire hard drive.
4. Web access
If you think you might want to access backed-up files from a machine other than your own, check that your new backup provider allows you access to files via a Web browser. By ensuring this, you'll be able to log into your account via your provider's Web site and download that bill, spreadsheet or photo when you're away from home.
5. File size limit
If you're backing up music and video files, some providers may impose a limit on how large any one file can be. It's not a common issue, but be wary of these limits if you deal with large media files.
6. Multiple machines
Do you need to back up loads of computers? If so, be sure your provider allows it. Also check if this will cost you extra (it probably will).
7. Monitor folders
If you're looking to leave your computer backing itself up whenever any files are changed, you need to see if your provider's software actively monitors your computer's folders for changes. If it doesn't, you'll need to make sure you manually upload files to be backed up or stored.
Now you know what to be looking for, we're going to review four services, each with their own strengths. We'll kick off with our favourite free option, Dropbox.